Commissioner of Inquiry into State Capture

Remember our heroes with integrity

It was his eyes I remember best, carefully watching us through his glasses as he listened, and we spoke. It was the early 1980s. Apartheid was at its height. The power of white supremacy and the tyranny that went with it seemed unassailable.

We were students at Wits University, and he was our mathematics tutor. We were all Building Science students and none of us were particularly good at maths. It was course we had to pass, and he was patient with us as we struggled through the mysteries of integral calculus, moments of force times distance, and other calculations vital to the world of roofs, houses, skyscrapers, bridges and a thousand other structures. To understand the maths of their design was to ensure that they would not fall down.

Frankly, most of us were more practical than theoretical and we itched to get onto the building sites themselves and be there at the pouring of concrete and the laying of bricks. The maths behind it all we would leave to the engineers.

Our tutor seemed, perhaps reluctantly, to understand this about us, and somehow, maths theory often disappeared as the long afternoon in the lecture room went on. Instead, they were replaced with discussions about the racist beliefs and laws of the time.

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I remember so well three or four of us gathered around him in the back of the room, talking to him about politics. The content of the discussions I have long forgotten, but the strength of our tutor’s personality has remained with me for a lifetime.


He would listen carefully, without interruption, as the young men around me spoke to him. Most of them had finished two years compulsory national service in the army, one of them was a lieutenant still active in the intelligence corps. Their minds were affected by the apartheid indoctrination of the time, and some of them had been in combat up on the Namibia-Angola border. They were filled with anger and – I now understand – symptoms of post-traumatic stress from the violence they had witnessed and perhaps even committed. They despised Nelson Mandela and the ANC of that time. They saw them as evil, out to destroy everything they had been taught to believe was sacred. Some of them had even faced ANC cadres in the blood and heat of the bush war.

I hadn’t been to the army, but I was already beginning to work as a journalist. I listened mostly, my instinct to hear and bear witness beginning to emerge in my newly adult personality.

My fellow students would rage at our tutor. Some of them had lived the cruelties of war and that experience had scarred them in inchoate ways that I now know take a lifetime to try and make sense of. Others had simply been taught to believe in white superiority, and to fear the growing emergence of black people’s self-actualisation after centuries of white oppression.

Our tutor never responded in kind. He was always calm and reacted to their often searching, sometimes emotional, arguments with dignity.

The key to his approach, I realised, watching his thoughtful eyes moving from one person to another, was that he always took their arguments seriously, even when he clearly disagreed with them or was obviously offended by them. He acknowledged them as human beings, not as mere ideological opponents.


I don’t know exactly what his political beliefs were, but he was a member of the UDF which was closely aligned to the ANC, and I knew he had spent time in jail for his political activities.

More importantly, though, he was the first person I ever consciously met who clearly supported the struggle for a non-racial South Africa and presented tangible arguments outside of the echo chamber debate within the white community about how black people should or should not react to their own bondage.

Let us not forget those times. The ANC was banned, and any overt support for it or for other banned organisation could mean long prison terms, with some form of hard physical abuse and often pure torture being almost a certainty, and death in detention was a real possibility.

Even then, I knew then what my tutor was doing took courage. He was treading close to the invisible line that haunted every morally aware person in apartheid South Africa: to say the wrong thing could lead to terrible consequences. And some of these young men in our class were still officially part of the army. They could have reported him for talking about struggle politics in a maths tutorial, and he had already been to prison. Who knew what might happen to him if he found himself there again? The tortured ghosts of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett were real presences in our world.

And yet he spoke out.

Always carefully, and vitally, always trying to apply reason to what he said. My fellow white students often did not agree with him, and they walked away at least superficially unconvinced. But they respected the genuineness of his approach.


For me, at least, the propaganda and worldview of apartheid withered convincingly in the power of his tolerance and rationality. I cannot speak for the other students, as even impeccable logic will not always win the day, but the clarity and patience he drew on when he spoke to us is something I have never forgotten. I have carried the memory of those somewhat furtive, but powerful, conversations through the years of my life.

His name is Ismail Momoniat. I completely lost touch with him and his career after I left university, but I was not surprised to discover in the Zondo Commission report that he was one of the senior Treasury officials to hold the line against State Capture and to use his mathematical acumen to calculate the costs of what Jacob Zuma and his clique had done to this country.

It was a measure of his sheer bravery and decency that the Guptas demanded Mcebisi Jonas fire him if he were to take their R600-million bribe deal to become Minister of Finance under then President Zuma.

Momoniat was an island of sanity, integrity and courage in the frightening, dangerous days of apartheid and he remains such an island in these sadly now treacherous times that we find ourselves in today.

The dangers are different, but equally severe: in the 1980s the prospect loomed large that our country would descend into a race-fueled civil war; today we face the real possibility that our country could collapse into a violent semi-state, where no one rules in any coherent way over a morass of civil rage and destroyed infrastructure.

It is nothing new to point out the corrosive effect of ongoing instant communication, of live television, of social media and its algorithms that are poisoning our consciousness: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims that it is Jews themselves who are most responsible for anti-Semitism, in the US, Kandiss Taylor, a Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia, refers to those who oppose her as “the Satanic elites,” while here in South Africa former Eskom CEO Matshela Koko wants to “Bring the Guptas back.”

The examples go on and on. A tide of lies and absurd irrationality wash over our minds every day, if not every hour, sometimes every few minutes.

In the face of this unrelenting and corrosive ludicrousness, we need actively to work to carry on the approach of the people like Ismail Momoniat, and others like him whom we have met in our lives. It strikes me, looking back on all those years, that his greatest strength was that he did not allow his own suffering and truly legitimate fears to ignore the hurt and uncertainty in those he disagreed with, no matter where they came from. He offered his arguments based on a recognition of the fragility of others. He made an appeal to at least try to find a way to move together and to see beyond the limits of our own pain and rage and, ultimately, the blindness, it causes.

For us to make the same balanced choices in our own lives seems now like a giant, almost meaninglessly sentimental, ask in today’s world of instantaneous techno-irrationality.

That, in itself, is a measure of just how lost we might actually be, if we do not stop and take the time to remind ourselves of what he, and the diminishing number of people like him, mean for our humanity in this increasingly violent and senseless age.






“I was a callow, totally inexperienced TV sound technician and journalist at the time, frightened and overwhelmed by what was happening all around me. It was not my first time encountering the violence of the apartheid state, but it was still a bewildering, disorientating experience.”

I was frightened about what was happening in front of me, and I was already accumulating powerful currents of PTSD from witnessing and filming the violence that was convulsing our land, so the fear resonated through my mind and my body at a number of different levels. It filled my chest, clenched around my heart, and made me feel dizzy, uncertain, even on the edge of nausea.

I clearly remember turning off what was then called “the Old Potch Road” (Now Chris Hani Road) into a dusty area of ragged veld with the angular bulk of Regina Mundi looming against the sky. The outer edges of this patch of land were surrounded by yellow police vehicles — casspirs and vans mostly. Hundreds of black people were gathered in and around the church, swarming in and out, while the police advanced in their thin, ragged ranks.

The cameraman and I had arrived late and found ourselves moving rapidly into the angry midst of the developing melee. Red dust from hundreds of feet was kicked up around the front of the church as people sang protest songs and chanted political slogans.

Nervously, we made our breathless way through the crowd. It struck me then so powerfully that the crowd was not hostile towards us, two white journalists sweating and pushing and deliberately gently shoving our way towards the entrance of the church.

I don’t mean to overemphasise any role I might personally have played, but it is true that we, our cameras, and our reports, were part of the Struggle. The people recognised that and respected it. This legacy is something that still survives in our country and is one of our greatest strengths.

Slowly, we were half-forced, half-ushered into the interior of the church. I remember the roar of sound, of harmonious singing that throbbed and echoed all around me.

The sweat of rage and exhaustion from the marching and the running from the police mingled with the smell of fear. They were angry songs, deeply formidable, filled with uncompromising rage, and as yet then, a still very far distant hope for freedom.

Power of solidarity

A new emotion swept through me, mingling with the distress. It was somewhat inchoate; I was swept along with the rousing sense of human solidarity that this powerfully cadenced outrage was literally giving voice to. I had never experienced anything like it in my life before. I understood the world in a completely different way from that moment on. I learned then that there is a strength in hope that cannot be expressed only in words.

At some point inside that church the singing segued into that supremely beautiful hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. It was the first time I had ever heard it and I was transfixed. With turmoil swirling all around, I simply allowed the beauty of it to wash over me, adding yet another layer to the complex emotions I was feeling.

I understand now that I was standing inside that church amidst the powerful singing that afternoon at a moment of personal revelation from which there could be no further illusions about what was happening in our country. I was held, within the limits of my own weaknesses, staring into the core of my own moral awareness, standing at the impossibly distant still point of the eternal conflict between power and justice.

The singing ended and shortly afterwards chaos erupted. Teargas was fired, the police charged, and people scattered. Trying to stay calm within the panic, we found ourselves standing on top of a clump of large boulders in front of the distinctive triangular entrance while people hurled rocks at the police, and the police fired back with teargas and shotguns. Soon, the meeting descended into fleeing youths and a few arrests.

Today, the red dust veld is well-tended lawn. The clump of boulders is fenced off as a memorial. Birds sing where once there was the tearing sound of shotgun ammunition and the loud pops of teargas launchers.

My mind is drawn back into the peaceful Sunday service. My memories have traversed 40 years — nearly half a century, and I am grateful for them. Not for the pain, for the killing, for the jailings without trial, for the deaths in detention, not for the bitter litany of racial oppression that goes back centuries in our country. Not for that at all.

I am grateful for the deep joy that Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika still evokes in me. I cannot help getting tears in my eyes when we sing our national anthem. That moment in the church so long ago is with me to this day, a reminder that despite our present problems — and they are serious — not all is failure.

“The struggle between power and justice still goes on, in different ways. We have entered a new moral era, where the clear certainty of the Struggle has dissipated. We still need courage to navigate between compassion and the fury that comes from inequality to create a better society.”

But we are a long way from the near civil war that raged when I first stood inside this church. The peace of this Sunday morning in 2024 is not an illusion. It was hard fought for.

We should remind ourselves that despite the corruption and broken promises in our society and the cruelty that underlies that betrayal, we are closer to that elusive still point where power and justice are equally balanced than both we, ourselves, and the world at large, ever thought we would reach. Even if we often disagree about how to achieve this, as we should.

However, resonating within the peace of this church and of so many other places like it across our country is a truth we share, one that seemed so impossible to imagine then: we see each other now as fellow citizens, not as enemies across a yawning racial, and political divide.

Our sense of shared identity is still emerging, raw and fragile, but we do believe now that we can create a society which looks beyond race. In a global world that is rapidly, and terrifyingly, fracturing along racial and cultural lines, that is an achievement of which we can rightly be proud. 

This article appeared in the Daily Maverick on 30 January 2024

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.